Trump just used us and our fear:
The Journey of One Woman Out of QAnon
One issue is what will happen to the adherents of conspiracy theories that bend Americans' views of fact during the political fallout following Donald J. Trump's four years.
Lenka Perron spent hours every day after work online in the summer of 2017, poring over feverish theories about mysterious people in authority. For the most part, she had quit cooking, and no longer took her usual stroll. She was less attentive to her girls, 11, 15 and 19, who were looking down at her screen, seeing a lot of the side of her face. All would be worth it, she assured herself. She was saving the nation and that would help them.
But one day, as she was scrolling, her eye caught something. On Facebook, people claiming to be sources inside the government reported that John Podesta, a former chief of staff of the White House, was about to be charged. And she was still watching a video on her phone that showed him talking casually in front of an audience. She saw Hillary Clinton, another supposed target for an indictment, at around the same time, walking in Hawaii, looking relaxed and carrying a cup of coffee.
"She was just not acting like someone who was going to be arrested," she said.
It was the first nagging sensation that it didn't add up to anything. Ms. Perron, a specialist in the insurance industry in suburban Detroit, eventually called it quits five months and several more contradictions later.
"I realized at some point, 'Oh, there's a reason it doesn't fit,'" she said. "We're being tampered with. At our expense, someone is having fun.
Her journey out of that world could be instructive: as the nation continues to sort through the political fallout of Donald J. Trump's four years, one looming issue is what will happen to QAnon's followers and other anti-establishment conspiracy theories that have twisted the expectations of truth of Americans.
There are signs that others have lost faith: Mr. Trump left Washington last week, blowing a hole in a key QAnon conviction that Mr. Trump was the one who would be inaugurated on Jan. 20, not President Biden. But others are doubling down, and experts assume that some form of the theory of the QAnon conspiracy will remain deeply ingrained in the culture of the nation by simply morphing, as it has before, to absorb the new developments.
The believers of QAnon are part of a larger spectrum of Americans immersed in conspiracy theories. Once on the far-right fringes, these ideas now have people in their thrall from across the political spectrum, from anti-lockdown libertarians to left-wing modes of well-being and "Stop the Steal" Trumpists.
The theories can be malevolent, hurting people who end up in their cross hairs with real-life damage: the parents of children killed in the mass shooting of Sandy Hook who were harassed by conspiracies, or a Washington pizza restaurant shot up by a man who came to take down a child trafficking ring he thought was housed inside. The crowd that invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6 was dotted with Q sweatshirts.
But while much has been said about how individuals descend into this culture, nothing is understood about how they get out of this world. Sometimes, those who do leave are filled with guilt. Their addiction was often so serious that they became estranged from family and friends.
To Ms. Perron now, the ideas sound insane, but looking back, she understands how they pulled her in. In a tumultuous world that felt profoundly unfair and rigged against middle-class individuals like her, they were soothing, a way of getting her bearings. The organization gave these stories: Evil cabals could be overcome. It could not have been a vague feeling that things were out of her grasp.
The hypothesis were fiction, but they were hooked into an emotional weakness that stemmed from something true. It was a feeling for Ms. Perron that the Democratic Party had misled her after a lifetime of profoundly trusting it.
Her immigrant family from the former Yugoslavia were union Democrats in working-class Detroit who, since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, had seen their middle-class lifestyle decline. She spent decades in factories as an auditor for the insurance industry, watching union workers wither. Yet, she remained at the party because she felt that she was struggling for it. She found it electrifying when Bernie Sanders became the presidential nominee.
Ms. Perron, who is now 55, said, "He put into words what I couldn't figure out but I was seeing around me." "There was a declining middle class. The 1% and the companies that have more power and take more of the profits.
She was confident he would be backed by the Political elite, and she started to volunteer for his campaign, meeting with several new friends in the movement. Yet she thought that he was scarcely reported by the news media. Then he lost the primary in 2016. It looked to her like the party hierarchy had conspired to block him when she started reading through leaked emails that fall.
She spent weeks, hacked by Mr. Podesta, the Democratic National Committee and Mrs. Clinton, combing through the emails. Her shocked discovery angered her and set her on the road to the theories of conspiracy and, finally, QAnon.
"She said about the emails, "There was no sign of dialog about the working class. Alternatively, she said, it was' costly dinner parties, exclusive get-togethers.'
The emails became the gateway for Ms. Perron to the conspiracy world, and there she also met others. She was no longer a solitary victim of a power that she did not understand, but a member of a greater group of truth-seeking individuals. She enjoyed the common-purpose feeling. Together, they learned how to investigate, looked up important individuals in the emails and worked out how to track them back to major donors.
"This excitement was there," said Ms. Perron. We eventually joined forces to clean the house. In order to actually find something to justify why we suffered.
The group expanded, and it went to darker places, too. Ms. Perron recalls viewing and posting videos that seem to link Mr. Podesta, Mrs. Clinton and a child sex trafficking ring to a Washington pizza parlor. The dots were hazy, but on Facebook and Reddit, she and her newfound friends drew clear lines linking them. Now, she said, it sounds insane, but it felt so real and upsetting at the time that sometimes she felt physically ill.
"It was all of us," she said of her early immersion months. These were the puzzle pieces with which we all got to play around. We were just kind of writing this down.
If the early months were a build-your-own-adventure planned by various people, after Q, the unknown individual or individuals at the core of QAnon, first posted in late 2017, she said, all the theories were snapped together into one massive "deep state" explanation. Q's data drops had an addictive effect, pulling her in after she had begun to have doubts again.
Q managed to make us feel special, that we were given very important data that was essentially going to save all that was good in the world and the United States," she said." We assumed that we came from a position of moral supremacy. We used to be part of a special club.
In the meantime, because she had stopped cooking and her stress levels had shot up, her family had been consuming takeout all the time, causing her blood pressure medicine to stop working. Her doctor doubled her dosage, concerned.
It was only made worse by people who tried to talk her out of the conspiracy theories by giving her truthful facts.
"Facts are no longer facts," said Ms. Perron. "They are extremely powerful, nefarious individuals who send messages to keep us as docile as sheep."
The arguments she witnessed became more outlandish as the months went by. Within the Democratic Party, there were slickly crafted images of cannibalism and Satanism.
"She said, "The people I met on social media, they began to look stranger and act stranger, and I didn't want to be like that.
A source of doubt was Mr. Trump himself. Q described him as a clever mastermind and she acknowledged that for a while. But the character became more difficult to reconcile with what she experienced in real life.
During a phone call with a childhood friend, another twinge of self-consciousness arrived. "I remember calling my best friend and getting all of them into the government's number of pedophiles and taking over the entire government system," she said. "I felt a portion of her saying, 'This is not the friend I know.' It never came out in words, it was just a sense I had."
She felt a lot of remorse and guilt when she first left QAnon. It was also humbling: Ms. Perron, who holds a master's degree, looked down on Scientologists as believers in insane stuff. But she was there.
She has come to enjoy the experience, however. She spoke about what she went through with her children, and she learned to recognise dependency on conspiracy in others. She agreed to talk to support those who are also in the throes of QAnon for this post.
Many are there. As a life coach, Ms. Perron volunteers, and she recently worked with a 40-year-old man who lost his marriage and fell asleep at work. He started texting her Q links at some point. He stayed up all night reading conspiracy theories, she realized.
She said, "I was watching his life fall apart." "There was no way I could penetrate it. I was not even able to make a dent.
She said that she wasn't working with him anymore.
Mr. Trump may have left the government, but Ms. Perron claims that the ground for conspiracy theories is still fertile because many of the underlying circumstances are the same: widespread mistrust of authority, resentment at influential leaders and news media figures, and increasing disparity in wealth.
The craving will continue unless there are big improvements, Ms. Perron said.
She said, "Trump just used us and our fear." When you do not live in fear anymore, you are no longer likely to believe this stuff. I don't think we're even anywhere near that.